Oscar-Winning Actor Sidney Poitier Dies at 94

LOS ANGELES (CNS) – Tributes from Hollywood and around the world poured in today in honor of legendary actor Sidney Poitier, who broke color barriers when he became the first Black performer to win an Oscar for a leading role and paved the way for generations of Black actors who followed.

Poitier, 94, died Thursday in the Bahamas, according to the Bahamian Minister of Foreign Affairs. A cause of death was not revealed.

Born in Miami but raised in the Bahamas, Poitier won the best actor Academy Award for his work in “Lilies of the Field” in 1963, and he went on to become a major box office draw, a notion that was unheard of for a Black performer in the 1960s.

He cemented his legendary status with a trio of iconic 1967 roles: as Mark Thackeray in “To Sir With Love,” Detective Virgil Tibbs in “In the Heat of the Night” and as John Prentice — fiance to a white woman — in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”

His films and roles directly attacked racial divides, and his emergence as a Hollywood star served as a beacon for Black performers that they could do more than portray servants, maids or musicians on screen.  

His film resume included “The Defiant Ones,” “Porgy and Bess,” “A Raisin in the Sun,” “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” “A Patch of Blue,” “Uptown Saturday Night,” “Buck and the Preacher,” “Sneakers” and “A Piece of the Action.”

He directed nine films, beginning with “Buck and the Preachers” and including “Uptown Saturday Night” and the Richard Pryor-Gene Wilder comedy “Stir Crazy.”

Poitier also received acclaim on the small screen, portraying Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in the miniseries “Separate But Equal” and Nelson Mandela in the TV film “Mandela and de Klerk.”

Although he broke the Academy Awards color barrier in the early 1960s, it was decades later until any other Black performers received such honors.

It wasn’t until 2002 — the year Poitier received an honorary Oscar — that the Academy Awards made history by giving its top acting awards to two Black performers, Denzel Washington for “Training Day” and Halle Berry for “Monster’s Ball.” It was Washington who presented Poitier with the honorary Oscar earlier in the telecast.

Poitier was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 by President Barack Obama.

“Through his groundbreaking roles and singular talent, Sidney Poitier epitomized dignity and grace, revealing the power of movies to bring us closer together,” Obama said in a statement Friday. “He also opened doors for a generation of actors. Michelle and I send our love to his family and legion of fans.”

From 1997 to 2007, Poitier, who has dual citizenship in the United States and the Bahamas, served as the Bahamian ambassador to Japan.

“For me, the greatest of the `Great Trees’ has fallen: Sidney Poitier,” Oprah Winfrey said in a statement. “My honor to have loved him as a mentor. Friend. Brother. Confidant. Wisdom teacher. The utmost, highest regard and praise for his most magnificent, gracious, eloquent life. I treasured him. I adored him. He had an enormous soul I will forever cherish. Blessings to Joanna and his world of beautiful daughters.”

Oscar winner Marlee Matlin said, “So sad to read of the passing of Sidney Poitier. Thank you for gracing us with your brilliance.”

Ex-Walt Disney Co. CEO Robert Iger also hailed him, writing on Twitter, “Former Disney board member Sidney Poitier was the most dignified man I’ve ever met. Towering, gentle, passionate, bold, kind, altogether special.”

Whoopi Goldberg added, “If you wanted the sky I would write across the sky in letters that would soar a thousand feet high. To Sir, with Love. Sir Sidney Poitier RIP. He showed us how to reach for the stars.

Laker legend Magic Johnson also lamented the loss of his friend.

“Sidney was incredibly talented, professional and so distinguished,” Johnson wrote. “I still watch his movies today like `To Sir, With Love,’ `Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,’ `They Call Me Mr. Tibbs’ and one of my favorites, `In the Heat of the Night.’ A great friend, I learned a lot from watching Sidney and how he carried himself with such grace and class. May he rest in peace.”

Actor/director Ron Howard called Poitier “one of cinema’s greatest leading men ever.”

“Riveting to watch,” he wrote. “Also an excellent director and from the couple of times I had the honor of meeting him, an extraordinarily intelligent and gracious man. Watch a Poitier movie or two this week.”

Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz noted that Poitier “bore a responsibility no other actor of his era had to carry.”

“He didn’t choose to represent all Black men, but as the sole Black leading man in a business uncomfortable with more than one, such was his lot.

Still, he delivered nuance, charm and honesty to each role,” Mankiewicz tweeted.

Poitier is survived by his wife, Joanna, and six daughters.

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